Friday, January 25, 2013

The metaphor of 'difference between rotation and revolution'- III

Many parents  are not very concerned  about whether their children learn anything or not so long as they score marks in exams. For instance, a child solved a problem by the wrong method but got the right answer by fluke because of the particular combination of numbers used. I wanted to correct the error but the mother was happy that her son had got the correct answer and moved on to the next problem. The tragedy is that exactly the same problem from the textbook will come for the exam, the child will solve it using the wrong method, get full marks and everyone will be happy. So the child will never learn what the error was. This will have consequences in higher classes.

The topics covered seem to be a lot lesser than what I seem to remember. Of course one must remember what one professor told his students when they asked him what he  would cover during the term - 'It is not about what I cover but about what you discover.' But with the methods of teaching and learning that I see, I am not sure how much students discover. For example, students are asked to memorise the scientific names of various creatures or the atomic numbers of various elements. Parrots could do that. ( Actual exam questions: 1.The scientific name for saffron is___ 2.An element with 15 protons, 15 electrons and 16 neutrons is_______) Hardly any time is spent explaining the Scientific Method.  Most Indians graduating from their 12th standard in the high schools of India don’t know what science is.

Studying to learn  and studying to score marks in exams are two different things. In an ideal world the two approaches should coincide but we live in a messy world. The good schools achieve a decent balance between the two objectives. But in the majority of schools (especially in Tamil Nadu from what I can see) the emphasis seems to be on maximizing the marks scored in tests irrespective of whether the student has actually learnt something.

Over the years, there has been considerable marks inflation. I often hear about absurd cut-off marks for admission in various colleges. I studied with many super-brains at various levels and I keep wondering whether so many of these students are so much better than them. It seems improbable.

The libaral marking may havee been an effort to reduce stress on students but it may be having the opposite effect because in spite of doing well in the exams, they have to sweat over college admmission. I have heard students say that it is no use studying hard because they are still not sure of getting admission in good colleges. (Again the conflation of studies and marks.) The liberal marking may be detrimental to students. In this interesting course introduction, a professor at Yale University explains why he is strict in awarding grades.

Whenever multifaceted, amorphous concepts are sought to be measured along a linear scale, some information is sure to be lost. This problem happens when there is excessive focus on marks. For example, the ability to write grammatically correct sentences and arrange them properly so as to express one's thoughts clearly is an important skill which the marks don't tell you anything about.I don't think enough attention is being paid to developing the writing abilities of students.

However highly qualified you are, it is an advantage to to be able to write clearly in the language that the person at the receiving end is able to understand. In many bussines situations, this happens to be English due to historical reasons, what economists call a path dependant process. (Here is an account of an attempt to create the perfect language. I am sure it handles these emotions better than English.) I was surprised to see that in the previous school Sujit studied in, the students were asked to memorise some essays that had been dictated to them and the students were asked to vomit out one of these essays during the exams.

It seems to be a fashion these days for students to attend tuitions. When I was a student, only the weak students went for tuitions but now everybody goes for tuitions. It seems to have got into the heads of students that attending tuitions is essential for scoring marks in exams. (Again the conflation of marks with learning.)

These tuition centres know the patterns of questions in various exam papers and they make the students do just those types of questions. The students score well in the exams and both they and the parents are happy. Little actual learning takes place. If you ask the students the same questions in a different form, they will struggle to answer.

PS: Here is a chat with Salman Khan of Khan Academies at Google and here is an earlier talk he gave at Google.

PPS:  Finnish education system

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The metaphor of 'difference between rotation and revolution'- II

A couple of students who were going to write their Board exams told me that their teacher told them that they should write matter relevant to the question at the beginning and the end and they can write any story they want inbetween in order to make the answer lengthy! It seems that the person correcting the paper will only read the beginning and end of the answer. All that needs to be ensured is that the answer is long. One doesn't expect all teachers to be like Sanderson of Oundle but at least one doesn't expect such an advice. The general idea among students seems to be that  to get more marks one should make the answers as long as possible. What is actually written seems to be less important. There seems to be more emphasis on form rather than content.

Students seem to be encouraged to learn some formula to some problem rather than think about the process. For eg.,  for finding out the area of a pathway, the students were not told the general approach of subtracting the area of the inner shape from the area of the outer shape. Instead students had to learn one formula for a rectangular  pathway and another for a circular pathway which was also the approach followed in the textbook. They didn't know that the same logic was used for deriving both formulas. Using generalisations seems to be out of fashion. While discussing misconceptions about mathematics, John Allen Paulos writes in A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper:
Probably the most harmful misconception is that mathematics is essentially a matter of computation. Believing this is roughly equivalent to believing that writing essays is the same as typing them. Or, to vary the analogy, imagine the interest in literature that would be engendered if every English class focused exclusively on punctuation.
There also seems to be the fear that one has to write exactly what the teacher has dictated else it will marked wrong.  In his textbook, one student had written the answer '8 min.' for the question 'What is the speed of light?' and  for the next question, 'How long does it take for light from the sun to reach the earth?', he had written the answer '300,0000 km/s'. It was obvious that the teacher had dictated the correct answers but the boy had written them the wrong way around. I told him to correct the error but he was reluctant saying that the teacher would mark him wrong if he wrote a different answer. It should have been obvious from the units that the answers were looking weird. I managed to make him change the the answers but I am quite sure that if the questions came for the exam, he would have written his original incorrect answers.  Bertrand Russell said:
Passive acceptance of the teacher's wisdom is easy to most boys and girls. It involves no effort of independent thought, and seems rational because the teacher knows more than his pupils; it is moreover the way to win the favour of the teacher unless he is a very exceptional man. Yet the habit of passive acceptance is a disastrous one in later life. It causes man to seek and to accept a leader, and to accept as a leader whoever is established in that position.
In this video, Noam Chomsky outlines two approaches to education: one which emphasises critical thinking and gaining knowledge or one that is used for indoctrination and ensuring conformity. I think  that the education  system as currently structured leans more towards the latter approach. For instance, take educational loans. Making them freely available sounds a good idea but I think there are issues.

People will flock to the highest paid jobs initially, If it is thought that they can easily switch to a job more to their liking after they paid back their loans, it is easier said than done. By that time, they would have got used to their lifestyles, they may have a family of their own  which reduces risk-taking ability and there will be considerable peer and family pressure against taking a lower paying job in a lower position which will be hard to ignore. It is hard to know how to address this problem but I think the bigger problem is that the-powers -that-be don't think that it is a problem.

Some months ago there was An Open Letter to India’s Graduating Classes written by an employer which drew varied reactions. I can't comment on all the points since I have been out of the loop for a while but the following comment could be true in a large number of cases:
You are also unduly impressed by titles and perceived hierarchy. While there is a strong cultural bias of deference and subservience to titles in India, it is as much your responsibility as it is ours to challenge this view.
This is not an easy problem to solve since deference to authority is ingrained in everyone since childhood. The educational system just perpetuates the system justification bias and many end up making choices like Vera in Chekhov's short story, At Home.In this video, where Alain de Button talks about Socrates, he says that there are many similarities between humans and sheep. This tendency is accentuated by the increasing debt burden students have to bear which makes it important for them to hold on to their jobs.

PS:I was shocked by this account of how nerds are treated in many US schools as also by this post.

PPS: This cartoon reminded me of 'arbit c.p.' (arbitrary class participation) at IIMA.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The metaphor of 'difference between rotation and revolution'- I

I was told sometime back that some toppers of the matriculation Board may not know the difference between rotation and revolution. I don't know whether to believe this or not but it is a good metaphor for how learning takes place in many schools. The matriculation Board is no longer there but the teaching and learning methods are not going to change overnight. In The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins relates a similar tale:
It is with horrified fascination that I return,  as if scratching an itch or pressing a toothache, to the poll, documented in the Appendix, suggesting that 19% of British people don’t know what a year is, and think the Earth orbits the sun once per month. Even of those who understand what a year is, a larger percentage has no understanding of what causes seasons, presuming, with rampant Northern Hemisphere chauvinism, that we are closest to the sun in June and furthest away in December.
I wouldn't have been surprised if these figures (or even higher), were for India because of widespread illiteracy but in Britain? (According to this TED talk, the illiteracy may be much higher in India because of the way in which literacy is measured.)

Apparently, in the Matriculation Board, you had to write exactly as given in text book. If you write in your words, there is a good possibility that you may be marked wrong. Children are not encouraged to refer to other books and write things that are not in the the text books. And what about those text books? One cannot expect them to be as gripping as Robert Krulwich would like them to be but at least one expects them to be free of blunders like the following:
  1. Revolution of the earth causes seasons
  2. Fungi are plants.
  3. Some two land masses separated over thousands of years. (You could say that millions is made up of many thousands but it gives an erroneous idea of the  scales of time involved in these processes.)
  4. Aryabhatta knew about Pythagoras theorem before Pythagoras did.(The problem is that Pythagoras lived about a millennium  before Aryabhatta. But that is nothing compared to a textbook like this.)
  5. The atomic number of an element is 6 therefore its mass number is 14.
Another problem in many schools is that the students are required to learn only the answers to the questions given at the end of the chapter. They can get good marks in the subject even if they don't read the chapter because the questions will come from the back of the the chapter. It is quite possible that the difference between rotation  and revolution would have been discussed in the chapter but would not have been a question at the end of the the chapter so the students would never have learnt it.

I think all noise over academic pressure is a bit exaggerated or perhaps the correction has moved too far in the other direction. I  was surprised to learn  that Sujit had only one chapter each in physics and chemistry in Std. VIII in the final exam. In Maths, only the portion taught in the third term was included for the final exam. Since algebra  was taught in previous terms, it was not included. Algebra is a useful topic to know so this is not doing the students any favours. All this seems to be part of a dumbing down process that seems to be mistaken for simplification. A similar dumbing down process also seems to be taking place in the US.

PS: People  often ask children what they want to become when they grow up. Some know  that these keep changing but some people take them seriously and start advising them about what they have to do. In this commencement speech, Robert Krulwich describes how people typically stumble on to their final career. (This is the second awesome Krulwich speech in this post.)